Blogging with Habakkuk (19) – Is God There?

(Part 19 in a series of posts on Habakkuk.)

Habakkuk 3:3-15

Habakkuk’s third big question was, “Is God there?” How can you be assured of God’s presence? First, approach God in an attitude of worship (verses 1-2a). Secondly, remember God’s mighty deeds of the past (verses 3-15). This is what takes up the bulk of Habakkuk’s prayer in chapter 3. At its heart Habakkuk’s psalm is a song that describes God’s awesome presence and deeds.

As Habakkuk reflects on God’s deeds in the past, he emphasizes two points in particular. First of all, a word of warning: God conquers all enemies in his path. Let’s walk through these verses together and unpack some of the imagery that Habakkuk uses here.

Verses 3-4 say: “God came from Teman, the Holy One from Mount Paran. His glory covered the heavens and his praise filled the earth. His splendor was like the sunrise; rays flashed from his hand, where his power was hidden.” Teman was in the region to the south of Israel in the country of Edom. Mount Paran was located in the wilderness area between Edom and Mount Sinai. God’s coming is compared to a thunderstorm approaching Israel from the south. His brightness lights up the sky. Rays of lightning flash from his hands as from the deep thunderclouds, yet the full extent of God’s power remains hidden.

Verses 5-6 say: “Plague went before him; pestilence followed his steps. He stood, and shook the earth; he looked, and made the nations tremble. The ancient mountains crumbled and the age-old hills collapsed. His ways are eternal.” Plague and pestilence are signs of God’s judgment. The word pestilence can also mean “flame” (from a word meaning “to burn”). And so verse 5 could also be translated as “flames went forth from his feet.” It is a picture of God’s awesome power and holiness as he walks through the land judging the earth for its sins. The nations tremble before him, and even the mountains and the hills crumble and collapse in his presence. The word “collapse” in verse 6 literally means “to bow down.” And so there is the sense of God’s creation bowing down in worship before him. The mountains may be ancient, the hills may have stood since ages-old, but God’s ways are eternal, and so they all fall down before him.

Verse 7 says, “I saw the tents of Cushan in distress, the dwellings of Midian in anguish.” (Habakkuk 3:7) Here Habakkuk pictures the Cushan and Midianite people who live in tents in the desert trembling at God’s appearance as he passes them in the wilderness.

After describing God’s awesome appearance in verses 3-7, in verses 8-15 Habakkuk describes God’s conquest of all his enemies. In verses 8-9 Habakkuk describes God’s conquest over the rivers and the sea. “Were you angry with the rivers, O LORD? Was your wrath against the streams? Did you rage against the sea when you rode with your horses and your victorious chariots? You uncovered your bow, you called for many arrows.” (Habakkuk 3:8-9) There are three different words for God’s anger in these verses: anger, wrath and rage. The word for anger means hot or burning; the word for wrath means breath or nostrils; the word for rage means to pour out or overflow. Taken together they speak of God’s burning anger, the fierce blast of breath from his nostrils, his overflowing judgment poured out on his enemies because of their sin.

Verses 9-12 continue: “You split the earth with rivers; the mountains saw you and writhed. Torrents of water swept by; the deep roared and lifted its waves on high. Sun and moon stood still in the heavens at the glint of your flying arrows, at the lightning of your flashing spear. In wrath you strode through the earth and in anger you threshed the nations.” (Habakkuk 3:9-12) The fierce wind and earthquake are followed by a downpour. Water floods the earth as in the days of Noah, splitting the earth with rivers. The sea lifts its waves on high, literally “lifts its hands on high.” This is more flood imagery but could also be a sign of submission and praise to the Lord. Even the sun and the moon stand still in fear of God’s awesome power. The flying arrows and flashing spear are more poetic references to lightning. God’s striding through the earth is perhaps another reference to thunder. And so all the forces of nature: the mountains, the rivers and streams, the sea, the sun and the moon all acknowledge God as Lord as he strides through the earth and threshes the nations in judgment.

Hebrew poetry often borrowed imagery from the mythologies of the surrounding nations. For example, there are several passages in the Bible that speak about God conquering Rahab the monster of chaos, and Leviathan the seven-headed dragon from the sea. It’s not that the Biblical writers believed that these creatures were real, any more than they believed that the false god Baal was real when they spoke about God defeating Baal. But it was their way of showing that God was superior to all the false gods of the nations, that he was conqueror over all his enemies.

The section in verses 13-15 picks up on some of this dragon imagery: “You came out to deliver your people, to save your anointed one. You crushed the leader of the land of wickedness, you stripped him from head to foot. With his own spear you pierced his head when his warriors stormed out to scatter us, gloating as though about to devour the wretched who were in hiding. You trampled the sea with your horses, churning the great waters.” (Habakkuk 3:13-15)

“From head to foot” in verse 13 is literally “from neck to tail,” picturing God’s conquest of the great dragon Leviathan. Of course Satan is also called a dragon in Scripture, and so this is also a picture of God’s final conquest of Satan and his forces. Finally verse 15 says that God tramples the sea. In the Bible the sea is a symbol of all the evil forces in the world that stand opposed to God.

Habakkuk wants us to understand that yes, God is there, and God conquers all his enemies. That is the word of warning. But Habakkuk also wants us to understand that God comes to deliver his people. That is a word of comfort. So on one level verses 3-15 give us this dramatic picture of God coming up from the south and completely destroying all the enemies in his path. But on another level, the song is also full of imagery relating to God’s dealing with his people Israel. In many ways this song is a dramatic re-telling of God’s deliverance of his people.

Teman and Paran in verse 3 remind us of God’s presence with his people in the wilderness, where he first revealed himself to Israel and then led them on to the Promised Land. The thunderstorm and earthquake imagery is a reminder of God meeting with his people at Mount Sinai to give them the Ten Commandments. Plague and pestilence recall God’s ten plagues on Egypt resulting in Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. The victory over the rivers and the sea are meant to remind us of Israel’s miraculous crossings of the Red Sea and the Jordan River. The sun and the moon standing still are meant to remind us of Joshua’s victory over the Amorites recorded in Joshua 10. Piercing the head of the enemy with his own spear reminds us of David cutting off the head of Goliath with his own sword. Verse 13 speaks of God coming to deliver his people and to save his anointed one. The “anointed one” in the Hebrew language is literally “the Messiah,” the son of David who would come to deliver God’s people for good.

And so throughout the poem Habakkuk has expertly used imagery that not only details the defeat of God’s enemies, but also recalls God’s great saving acts for his people – their deliverance from Egypt; the Exodus and the crossing of the Red Sea; the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai; their wandering in the wilderness and eventual conquest of the promised land; David the anointed king and the coming of Messiah who would bring salvation for his people.

When you are wondering, “Is God there?” how can you be assured of God’s presence? Remember God’s mighty deeds of the past. God conquers all enemies in his path. God comes to deliver his people.

(Looking ahead: You may have noticed that we skipped over verse 2b. We will pick that up next time.)

Here are the links to the whole Blogging with Habakkuk series: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25.

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  1. Blogging with Habakkuk (1) at Ray Fowler .org

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